It’s a touching story of heroism, optimism, perseverance and belief in the abilities of every special child. Lotan’s mother gave birth to Lotan in the 24th week of her pregnancy, 4 months premature. The family spent 6 months in the ICU with their infant. After 2 months, Lotan suffered from oxygen deprivation, and thus began a lifelong, uphill battle for life and normalcy.
Lotan has cerebral palsy. “All along, they warned us that she wouldn’t walk, wouldn’t dance,” relates her mother. “But all along I insisted, ‘Yes, you will!’” And Lotan did.
During her senior year in high school, when IDF officials visited and lectured about the army, Lotan was enchanted. Her dream was to serve in the IDF too. Parents, teachers and friends gently attempted to dissuade her so she wouldn’t get hurt. Her parents even accompanied her to army registration where they received the doctor’s verdict that she was exempt from army service, but Lotan wasn’t deterred.
“I want to serve in army. I want to wear a uniform!” Her dogged persistence led her to meet the directors of Special in Uniform who showed Lotan that she wasn’t alone.
Developed ten years ago by Reserve Major Colonel Ariel Almog, former commander of the HFC base in Ramleh, Special in Uniform is a groundbreaking initiative of the Israel Defense Forces that incorporates young people with disabilities into the military and helps them integrate long-term into society and the workforce. The focus of the program is on ability, not disability, upon utilizing and emphasizing talents and capacities of people with disabilities in order to foster independence and integration into mainstream society despite physical challenges.
Several years ago, Special in Uniform joined forces with Israel’s Lend a Hand to the Special Child Foundation, a grassroots organization established in 2005 by parents of children with disabilities that operates in partnership with the Jewish National Fund (JNF).
Their common goal is to avail the program to thousands of young people in Israel who are suitable candidates for the program but are unaware of its existence. Executive Director of Lend a Hand Rabbi Mendy Belinitzki explains, “The Special in Uniform program starts in the army, but doesn’t end there. We clearly see how it afterwards effects better integration into society, community and the workforce.”
“‘We’re with you, Lotan. We’ll escort you through this,” they promised my daughter. It was then that I really began to believe that one day she would serve in the army,” says her mother.
Special in Uniform presently incorporates 200 youth into the military, helping them integrate into society and the employment sector. The initiative greatly contributes to the IDF as a whole and each individual soldier by fostering acceptance of diversity of people, thus creating a positive impact for a better society.
The program begins with a process of evaluation and assessment by a professional team, followed by a three-month course of life skills and occupational skills training. Military service commences with a 10-days basic training program, including group formation by professionals.
Afterwards the soldiers are integrated in a variety of functions including preparing protective kits, manning emergency depots, military store, printing shop, kitchen, shredding mill and more. Lt. Col (Res.) Tiran Attia, the director of the program, explains, “The[se children] were in special education schools… Suddenly they reach the age when everyone else joins the army, but the gates are closed. They can’t join. This program allows them to join the army, contribute, and give from themselves. Just like everyone else.”
With 230 participants and a long waiting list, Special in Uniform’s vision is to quickly expand the program to encompass 1,000 enrolled participants.
“It was such a moving experience to see her in uniform. I’m so proud of her. It was a major victory!” says her mother.
A victory not only for Lotan and her family, but for the IDF and Israeli society as a whole.